First Things

A Wintry Mix

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"Winter is not a season, it's an occupation." - Sinclair Lewis

My routine departure from the house is conducted at 90 miles an hour; race out the door, slide down the steps, jump in the car, throw it in reverse and peel out. Standard operating procedure, however, changes dramatically at this time of year. Here in the Midwest, you're a darn fool if you hustle over ice-coated steps. You're a bigger fool if you try to drive without clearing the frost-covered windshield, and nothing less than a menace to society if you speed on snow-packed roads.

So it is that we slow down and yield to old man winter. Still, we tend to think we've outwitted the old coot, as we dress in hightech outerwear, insulate the house, gab about in four-wheel drive vehicles and de-ice jet aircraft. Even the dog's water bowl is freeze proof! But that supreme mortal confidence fades quickly in the face of one prolonged power outage.

I've been thinking lately of the way people operated in winters of a century ago, before rural electrification, before thermostat-controlled furnaces, before state crews plowed the roads. In those days, winter truly was a full-time job. The very prospect of keeping a home warm, roads open, and livestock feed and sheltered gives pause to anyone who's come of age in this very modern world.

It was work, plain and simple, with none of the conveniences we enjoy today. Wood was cut and hauled repeatedly; fires built and banked around the clock. Kerosene lamps brightened dark nights, but fragile glass chimneys demanded constant cleaning. Those who worked outside felt the cold most keenly: Can you imagine colder work than that of a commercial ice harvesting operation? Conducted on a lake or pond shore in the coldest part of winter the work offered a knock-out punch both cold and wet.

Even with today's technology, winter north of the Mason-Dixon Line remains a bit of a job. As we soldier on in the Midwest, we think of our snow-bird friends in the south. Your senses may be dulled by relentless warm air and sunshine. You may not remember what you are missing. This little reminder of the northland is offered as a special service. To those who yearn for what the weather man calls "a wintery mix": warm greetings from the north!

Leslie McManus, Editor
lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com